Statway classes

Math instructor Howie Schwesky teaches one of the Statway classes offered at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times / March 5, 2014)

Community college student Catalina Daneshfar had always disliked math and she wasn't earning the grades to fulfill her algebra requirement to transfer to a four-year university.

At Pierce College, she got a D in her last remedial math class even though she hired a tutor and begged the professor to let her in.

"It felt like I had wasted my time," Daneshfar said.

This year, however, she signed up for a new algebra and statistics class, known as Statway, designed for non-math majors. She earned an A the first semester and is doing well so far this spring, putting her on schedule to earn enough credits to transfer to a Cal State University campus next year, she said.

"Statway saved my life," Daneshfar said. "At the very least, it saved me from another year of school."

Statway is Pierce College's latest attempt to tackle one of one of the biggest problems in California's two-year colleges: students who are stumped by beginning math. About 73% of freshmen at community colleges need remedial math, according to state statistics, and only about a third of these students end up transferring to a four-year school or graduating with an associate's degree, according to state figures.

The numbers are worse at Pierce, where only about 13% of students pass enough math courses to transfer, according to professors.

But about half of students who take the algebra/statistics course get a C or better. Students who complete the course also fulfill their transfer requirements in one year instead of a year and a half, the time frame for those who take typical remedial math courses.

"We know it's working," said Robert Martinez, the chairman of Pierce's math program.

Professors at Pierce in Woodland Hills are such big believers in the program that they plan to offer 15 sections of the course next year, up from only two in 2012.

Statway was developed by educators working with the Carnegie Foundation, which received $13 million in grants in 2010 to fund the effort. Forty-eight colleges nationwide now teach the class and it has been accepted for transfer credit by school systems in Washington, Minnesota, Florida, Connecticut and Texas, according to Carnegie.

Aside from Pierce, five other California community colleges offer Statway: American River College near Sacramento, Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Diablo Valley College in Contra Costa County, Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and San Diego City College.

The course covers basic and remedial algebra as well as statistics in two semesters and is designed for students who plan to major in liberal arts or non-science fields. Transferring Pierce students normally have to take three semesters of math, generally two semesters of algebra and an elective.

Roderick Todd said he took Statway because he wanted to transfer faster. Todd, a 47-year-old security guard, said he didn't want to turn 50 without finishing his degree. He hopes to attend UCLA, where he wants to major in African American studies.

Todd never went to college because his family needed him to work. He estimates that he's had "25 jobs in 25 years in 25 industries."

"Education is the equalizer for me," he said.

Todd and others insist that the course isn't easier than regular courses. Instead, they say it's more understandable because questions are less theoretical. Among them: Are you likely to find a greater proportion of blue M&M's in a bigger bag or a smaller bag? And what is the probability of a woman getting pregnant at a fertility clinic?

"In regular algebra, they just throw out 100 numbers and have you try to figure it out on your own," Daneshfar said.

In professor Howard Schwesky's recent class, students discussed such terms as null hypothesis and z values. "Remember, if the p value is low, the null hypothesis has to go," he said, drawing a few laughs from students who then broke into small groups to discuss other problems.

Students are not assigned a regular textbook and are instead given copied course materials from the Carnegie Foundation.

"We want there to be more emphasis on interaction and problem solving than lecturing and memorizing," Martinez said.

The Cal State system accepts Statway for transfer credit on a temporary basis, but University of California administrators have ruled several times that the course isn't rigorous enough for their standards.

"The faculty at UC are interested in alternative pathways, but, so far, Statway has not reached the level of quality we expect," said George Johnson, a UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor who has reviewed courses.

Pierce administrators believe that they have temporarily solved the problem by combining the Statway curriculum with another course that was already accepted for UC transfer, although they say they want Statway to be recognized by the state system.

UC administrators are scheduled to review Statway again this spring and Martinez said he thinks that it should pass.

"We're math people, we don't push things unless we have the data to show we're right," he said. "And I think we're right."

jason.song@latimes.com